Press Releases

December 10 2015

Eight Australian businesses sign up to tackle forced labour and exploitation

Woolworths, Coles, Big W, Masters, Simplot, Goodman Fielder, Inghams and Officeworks join the pledge to move towards better work practices.

Eight big Australian retailers and businesses have pledged to work together to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, forced labour, human trafficking and slavery from their manufacturing process and supply chains.

Woolworths, Coles, Big W, Masters, Simplot Australia, Goodman Fielder, Inghams Enterprises and Officeworks signed up on Thursday to the Pledge against Forced Labour, developed by the Retail and Supplier Roundtable sustainability council.

The chair of the council and chief executive of Simplot, Terry O’Brien, said the signatories recognised that human trafficking, slavery and other forms of forced labour were human rights abuses occurring in global supply chains.

“This pledge unites us against slavery and forced labour,” O’Brien said. “It aims to bring together retailers, suppliers, the government, NGOs and the Australian community, to act and eliminate this issue.

“We now call on other major Australian businesses to join us by signing up to the pledge.”

The head of group corporate responsibility for Woolworths, Armineh Mardirossian, said the pledge was an important first act in “shifting the dial”.

“This is the first step in what will be an ongoing process,” she said. “Companies understand they can’t address this on their own, so we are keen to work cooperatively: business and civil society and government working together.

“These supply chain issues are complex, and there are many different variables. This is the beginning of a journey. We know there are issues, we don’t know exactly what they are going to be, but we want to understand what is happening so we can work together to address it.”

Mardirossian said that while companies often had control over their immediate supply chains, they “lost visibility” of the suppliers further down the chain and had little control over labour practices two or three steps away from the final product.

Australian awareness of supply chain issues had increased significantly in the past four or five years, she said, but consumers and companies in other regions, Europe in particular, had made far greater progress in tackling the problem.

Globally, the forced labour workforce is estimated at more than 21 million people, according to the International Labour Organisation, the equivalent of three in every thousand people being forced to work.

About 4.5 million of those are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Domestic work, agriculture, construction and manufacturing are the sectors where forced labour is most prevalent, and migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable.

Tracing arcane supply chains back to their ultimate source and ensuring those chains are free of forced or exploitative labour, or illegal outsourcing, can be difficult for retail companies, particularly when those chains are in foreign countries with poor human rights records or weak governance structures.

The perils of exploitative supply chains were brought to international prominence in 2013, when Rana Plaza, an illegally-built garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,127 workers. Just hours before the eight-storey building came down, the factory owner had used armed security guards to force the workers back in after they had fled when large cracks appeared in the building.

No Australian companies had clothes made in that factory, but dozens of Australia’s brands are stitched in Dhaka’s sprawling industrial suburbs, and the Rana Plaza collapse brought global attention to work standards across Bangladesh’s massive but poorly regulated garment industry.

Companies such as Kmart, Forever New and Target signed a Bangladesh health and safety accord after the tragedy. Kmart publicly disclosed the location of its factories in Bangladesh and withdrew from those it deemed unsafe.

Worker exploitation exists in other industries too. There have been concerns over Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, where children are forced to harvest the crop, and the mining sector in parts of Africa, Asia and South America.

Australian sports ball manufacturers, including brands such as Sherrin and Summit, were found to be using child labour in India in 2012 and 2013. Both have taken steps to fix the situation.

The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, said the private sector had an important role to play in eliminating “the scourge of slavery and forced labour”.

“I encourage Australian businesses to sign up to the pledge,” she said.

The chief executive of World Vision Australia, Rev Tim Costello, said: “We welcome the announcement and applaud Australian businesses for coming together to tackle this significant problem.

“This is a global problem and no company is immune to it – and therefore all must play their part in reducing exploitation in their supply chains.

“This is an important step in seeing Australian businesses going beyond policies, towards practical implementation of standards beyond just direct suppliers, that will have a real impact on the lives of people in their supply chains.”

Australian businesses are able to join the pledge by contacting the Retail and Supplier Roundtable.